My cousin was only a few hours old when Oranga Tamariki – New Zealand’s child welfare agency – came with their court order to take her away. She was the second cousin in my family the government came to snatch. They took her older sister first, using the same shopping list of excuses. Mum’s unfit to parent. Dad’s in the Mongrel Mob. Never mind that neither is a justification to thieve someone else’s baby – the first is an accusation, the second is an association. ‘We have our court order and we mean to enforce it,’ the social workers told my aunty. And who was she to argue? Oranga Tamariki took thousands of babies into its ‘care’ that decade. The institution wins every time.
Except, of course, when it doesn’t.
Last month, a nineteen-year-old mum, her family and her midwives said ‘no’ to an Oranga Tamariki taking at Hawke’s Bay Hospital, in Hastings. ‘Baby is staying with us,’ the family told the child welfare agency.
Newsroom journalist Melanie Reid captured every moment of their face-off in excruciating detail. It’s a traumatic watch that will twist your gut. The social workers arrive, throwing the court order at the foot of the mother’s bed. The family ignore it, phoning their lawyer – who confirms an application to injunct the order is with the Family Court. The social workers reconvene. Someone higher up the bureaucratic chain proposes a ‘family group conference’ at a venue out of town, apparently hoping to break the deadlock.
Reasonable enough, yeah? What’s striking, though, is what happens next. That night, social workers and police return to the hospital, cornering the mother in her room. The nineteen-year-old is recovering from a caesarean section. She’s spent. There are no support people in the room. The hospital bosses disable her midwife’s swipe card. The police and hospital security cover every entrance, stopping the family getting to Mum. It’s 9 pm. She phones her lawyer, sobbing, telling her ‘they’re trying to brainwash me’. The social workers and police tell the mum that if she hands over baby she will get a good night’s sleep. Everything will go away. They keep this up until two in the morning.
The mum texts to her lawyer at 1.37 am: ‘I still have baby. They still trying to take him and I’m getting really tired.’
This is psychological torture, I think. Oranga Tamariki use the cover of darkness, mental bargaining – hand over baby and get a ‘good night’s sleep’ – and the coercive power of the police and the hospital to break a teenager’s will.
When the textbooks and the theorists talk about structural violence, this is what they mean. Government agencies using court orders against the mother, trespass notices against her supporters, and the coercive arm of the state to part a baby from its mother. Last year, the agency took 283 babies into its care. This is what that number looks like.
As far as I know, this is the first time the New Zealand public bears witness to an ‘uplift’ by its child welfare agency (uplift is bureaucratese for a taking). We can witness it in all its structural violence, yes, and in all its casual menace. The social workers arrive with a car seat and a smile as if what they’re doing is the most natural thing in the world. Sometimes I imagine the social workers who took my cousin did so with the same breeziness. Just one of dozens they took that year. Another newborn to add to the fifty-nine percent of taken babies who are Māori.
You wonder at what point does it just become a routine like any other? Monday, 9 am: uplift X. Tuesday, 9 am: uplift Y. Wednesday, 9am: Groundhog Day again. An institution that dehumanises parents can only work if it dehumanises its enforcers, too. Social workers must portray themselves as dispassionate. It’s nothing personal. It’s work. But in fact, nothing could be more personal. As Aaron Smale has explained this week, parents and children live with the monstrosity of a taking each and every day. The quickest way to end those takings is simply for social workers to say no.
The hive collapses without its worker bees.
The only acceptable outcome is for Oranga Tamariki not to be reformed but abolished. The young mum in the Hawke’s Bay did everything right. She was apparently participating in the agency’s own Family Start programme. Her family support network is active and strong. Tribal chiefs are committed to mentoring her partner and helping the family in whatever way they can. But knowing all that, Oranga Tamariki went ahead anyway, lodging an application for ‘removal’ based on – if reports are correct – second-hand evidence. They made the application without notice too, meaning the family had no chance to contest the claims or present their own evidence.
This, in a country whose prime minister made child welfare the centrepiece of her political programme. We are still waiting.